The windswept Pannonian Plains, where Serbia ends somewhere beyond the apple orchards and cabbage fields of Horgos and the EU begins somewhere in the fields of the Hungarian border town of Roszke, recently made international news headlines. We’ve all seen the images of refugees, many fleeing the war in Syria, camping on the closed highway at the Hungary-Serbia border crossing in Horgos and in the fields and woods around this no-man’s land, desperately trying to cross into the border-free Schengen zone.
Horgos is a no-man’s land that doesn’t feature in any of our guidebooks. It’s an unlikely holiday destination, way off the beaten track and yet there is much to be discovered here.
When I visited for the first time in 1992, my former sister in law Zsuzsanna, my brother and I only got as far as the Hungarian side of the border in Roszke. A violent civil war was raging on the other side of the border in Serbia.
As we waited for Zsuzsanna’s parents to join us from Horgos, I watched Serbian smugglers in battered old cars fill plastic jerrycans and two litre Coke bottles with petrol. Serbia had literally run out of fuel and we felt as if we’d driven from Germany to where Europe abruptly stopped and the Wild West began.
Zuszsanna’s parents arrived on foot, carrying large shopping bags filled with Palinka, a rough and potent homemade brandy made from a medley of windfalls – apples, apricots, plums, whatever the garden bore – homemade apricot jam, fragrant peaches, jars of pickled peppers and bags of finely ground red paprika.
Tears were shed as they embraced, after more then a year apart. Zsuzsanna had left the no-man’s land to become a nurse in Germany and to begin a new life. To get out and into the EU remains everybody’s dream. It was by pure chance that Zsuzsanna got away 6 months before the outbreak of the decade-long war which ended in 2001.
We took Zsuzsanna’s parents to lunch in Szeged, Hungary’s third largest city, 10 minutes from the border, on the river Tsiza. The birthplace of the Hungarian Salami, Szeged was an equally forgotten place of faceless apartment buildings made from pre-fabricated slabs that have come to define the architecture of the Soviet Block, and crumbling Art Nouveau buildings, a reminder of the glory days of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
After lunch of goulash and Schupfnudeln (fat finger noodles), serenaded by a ‘gypsy’ band, we drove back to the border, drank Palinka from a single shared Coke bottle cap and toasted in Hungarian.
Carrying shopping bags with the goods we had brought from Germany – coffee, butter, margarine, real chocolate and cigarettes for bartering – Zsuzsanna’s parents had their Serbian passports stamped. We watched them disappear across the plains, the breadbasket of what then still was Jugoslavia, along the sandy paths we have seen on our tv screens in recent weeks.
Crossing the border from Horgos, on the northern edge of the Hungarian speaking province of Vojvodina, on foot or by bicycle is part of everyday life for Zsuzsanna and her family, who became an ethnic minority stranded on the wrong side of the border when Vojvodina became part of Serbia.
Returning at the end of WWII, after five years in a POW in Baku, Zsuzsanna’s grandfather found his family separated by the arbitrarily drawn border. His sister had escaped to Szeged, his wife and daughter had become trapped in Horgos. Desperate to be reunited, he threaded his way in the dark of night across familiar apple orchards and cabbage fields. He was caught and marched past his own house, a prisoner now of the country he had defended during the war.
Bordered to the East by Romania, Vojvodina has always been a crossroad of cultures and migrations. The Austrian and Ottoman empires have collided here, leaving Eastern and Western cultural legacies and a patchwork of ethnicities.
When I crossed the border for the first time, in the summer of 2005, to join my brother, his young family and our parents on a family holiday in Horgos, Hungary had just joined the EU in the previous year and there were long waits at the border. Every car was being checked for smuggled goods, because everybody relied on smuggled goods.
Zsuzsanna’s father Zoltan made a minimal profit on selling smuggled sachets of powdered cappuccino, margarine, processed sausages wrapped in thick orange plastic skins and bottled mineral water at the local market. He did what everybody else did to survive; selling whatever excess the market garden produced, a few cucumbers, a dozen eggs, a couple of soccerball-sized watermelons. On that first holiday in 2005, six years after the fall of the Berlin wall, Horgos with its unsealed roads, crumbling buildings, mudbrick houses and unfashionable mullet haircuts, looked and felt as if Communist Jugoslavia was still pretty much alive.
We had a carefree holiday that year in no-man’s land, roaming through fields that spread like emerald carpets of cabbage, sunflowers, potates and pumpkins. In the mornings we’d pick fat cherries that spilled deep red juices and plum tomatoes that tasted like no other tomato I had ever eaten; in the afternoons we napped to birdsong in the shade of a large cherry tree and ate watermelon and ripe stone fruit until our tummies ached.
On the weekend we went by horse drawn cart and tractor into the forest to eat goulash cooked in a large cauldron over an open fire. Half the village had come and homemade Palinka bottled in large plastic Coke bottles flowed freely. After a few drinks people began dancing, then sobbing, to the melancholic tunes of an accordion. On our way back across the iron-flat plains, Zoltan pointed out the border to our left, it was never very far away.
On my most recent visit to Horgos, we arrived by car via Vienna and Prague, to put Zoltan to rest in the small Catholic Orthodox village church. He had died of a heart attack at 69. Life is hard in this part of the world. It was a cold summer, a chilly breeze came off the plains and we lit a fire to warm the mudbrick house. It gave a hint of the bitterly cold winters that make this no-man’s land ever more desolate for a good part of the year.
But it was summer and the garden was bursting with fragrant peaches, and purple plums and we spend afternoons cycling over the wide open grassy plains to the border and back.
One Sunday afternoon, we stopped to watch a trio of ‘gypsy’ kids ransacking an apricot tree. A chubby Roma boy was clutching a plastic bag full of fruit he offered to share with us, keen to have his photo taken by the blond foreigner. Soon we were surrounded by a band of kids, leading us to a birthday party a street away, on the outskirts of Horgos, where large Roma families live in basic ramshackle mudbrick houses, that made me think of India, where these people had originally migrated from.
Tjango, a short man with a kind face, who looked like someone I had seen driving a tuk tuk in Delhi, welcomed Zsuzsanna with open arms. He had worked for years with Zoltan. Others had also known Zoltan, and we were afforded a hero’s welcome. We were offered glasses of coca cola and strong coffee and danced to Balkan gypsy tunes, with kids swaying their hips like professional belly dancers and grown ups who treated us as if we were members of the extended family.
One morning I crossed the border by slow railbus and spent a day in Szeged which since Hungary’s entry into the EU has blossomed into a bustling university town. There was a large shaded square, free wifi zones and sparkling Art Noveau buildings restored with EU funds.
In the evening, a bus took me back to border. Friendly Hungarian guards looked at my German passport. I walked the short distance to the Serbian border, had my passport stamped by less friendly guards and walked on to Horgos in the evening light, passing brand new German cars, Mercedes, Porsche, Audi, on their way to the black market in Serbia. An old man in overalls rode across the border on a bicycle holding a shovel; young men and women returning on foot from work in Hungary led the way to a shortcut through the fields. At the corner of the unsealed road that led to Zsuzsanna’s mudbrick house, I saw a stolen Ferrari and a shiny Mercedes parked in a fenced yard, destined for the black market in Subotica or Novi Sad. Nothing much had changed on this side of the border, except the smuggled goods had become bigger and more expensive.
Hungary has now closed the border with a four metre barbed wire fence and the people of Horgos feel ever more trapped in a forgotten no-man’s land on the edge of the EU. Zsuzsanna didn’t go home this autumn to attend to Zoltan’s grave. She’s sold the mudbrick house for the price of a second hand car. Her best friend finally also made into the EU. The refugees have moved on, trying to cross into the EU at other borders, and Horgos has once again disappeared from our mental maps.
Two sides of the border, make for two very different realities.
Meanwhile the crumbling old spas on the Hungarian side of the border have been turned into medicinal wellness centres, thanks to EU financing. Szeged and the edge of the EU has become a popular holiday destination, particularly with East Germans, and other nationalities of the former Soviet Bloc, who used to spend their summer holidays here during the years of communist rule. Word has begun to spread that these spas offer affordable medicinal wellness treatments and Balkan charm mixed with a touch of communist nostalgia.
Wellness Spas near the Serbian-Hungarian border:
The Saint Erzsébet Mórahalom Medicinal Spa is close to the border with Horgos, 20 kms from Szeged. I loved this no frills spa which attracts lots of locals, families and those on a full health program. There are many different pools with icy cold and scolding hot thermal waters and plenty of fun pools for kids.
My favourite are the Anna Fürdő Baths in the city center of Szeged. Build at the end of the 19th century, it’s an elegant complex, with plenty of historic charm, where the locals have come for their weekly spa treatments for generations. It’s accordingly priced and would have to be one of the best bargains in town. There is a thermal spa, several jacuzzies, saunas and steam rooms and plunge pools in varying temperatures and you can easily spend a whole day chilling with the locals.
The brand-new Aquapolis Napfényfürdő Szeged on the outskirts of Szeged lacks the charm of the traditional baths, but it offers plenty of activities for the serious fitness freak and large pools and slides for those who just want to soak in the medicinal waters in spacious surrounds.
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